Outdated and discriminatory blasphemy laws are still far too common around the world and in Northern Ireland and Scotland. But English and Welsh blasphemy laws were abolished in May 2008. The offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were both statutory and common law offences which were contrary to the principle of free speech and probably contrary to human rights laws adopted by the UK, which protect freedom of expression. The laws fundamentally protected certain Christian beliefs and made it illegal to question them or deny them.
There were, at the time, a number of attempts to prosecute using the blasphemy law, all of which were rejected by the courts. The last was when the High Court rejected a case against BBC Director-General Mark Thompson over the screening of Jerry Springer – The Opera (penned by Stewart Lee, who subsequently became one of our patrons).
What we did
We campaigned for an end to the blasphemy laws in the UK for over a century and warmly welcomed their abolition. In January 2008, we published a briefing on the compelling reasons to abolish the blasphemy laws and we supported amendments to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill to abolish the laws, in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The Government wrote to us to say they were grateful for our support and Evan Harris MP, who spearheaded the initiative to abolish the laws, thanked us and especially the 1,000+ people who emailed their MP through our system in the two days running up to the Commons vote.
What we’re doing now
In England and Wales
Although blasphemy laws in England and Wales no longer exist, censorship on the basis of religious offence is still a problem. We see particular problems with censorship of adverts for causing ‘religious offence’ by the Advertising Standards Authority.
Blasphemy laws in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and around the world
Blasphemy laws remain in force in Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as in many other parts of the world. Blasphemy laws are a violation of the right to freedom of speech and expression, and are used around the world as a means of harassing, victimising, and discriminating against religion and belief minorities, and therefore impede the right to freedom of religion or belief.
In Scotland, our sister charity Humanist Society Scotland is running a campaign to end blasphemy laws in Scotland. In 2018, they succeeded in getting the SNP to adopt party policy supporting repealing the laws, but no proposals have been brought forward since then to actually do this.
In 2019 we launched a campaign to repeal Northern Ireland’s blasphemy laws. Blasphemy is still a crime in Northern Ireland and many countries with harsh blasphemy laws often look to western countries’ laws to justify their own. The launch of our campaign was featured on BBC News, ‘Campaign to get rid of NI blasphemy laws’. We’ve been asking people in Northern Ireland to write to their MLAs to make sure we get rid of these terrible laws.
We are now keeping a watch out for any efforts to curb free expression on the basis of religious offense – If you hear of or experience any such campaigns, email us.
You can support Humanists UK by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to Humanists UK.